THIS POST CONTAINS spoilers for Stephen King’s new book Holly, which comes out today.

Stephen King is readying himself for a flood of hate when his next book, Holly, drops on Sept. 5. “I think that a lot of people are not going to like it,” he says. “I think that a lot of people — particularly people on the other side of the Covid issue and the Trump issue — are going to give it one-star reviews on Amazon. But all I can say to those people is, ‘Knock yourself out.’”

While inviting bad reviews before publication may seem like an odd sentiment from one of the most prolific, acclaimed horror writers of all time, well… a lot of things are topsy-turvy these days. And unlike many writers who have released books over these past few years, King — as is his custom — doesn’t shy away from that discomfort in Holly, which follows the PI he introduced in the Mr. Mercedes series, as she attempts to solve a string of disappearances during the height of Covid. 

When first we find Holly, she’s attending her Covid-denying mother’s funeral via Zoom, and struggling to finally extricate herself from that domineering woman’s influence. As we saw in Mr. Mercedes and 2018’s The Outsider, Holly spent most of her life at home, sheltered from the world, before teaming up with retired Detective Bill Hodges at the Finders Keepers agency and tapping into her innate crime-solving skills. Holly sees her finally striking out on her own, and entering a world more terrifying than ever before: One in which disease looms around every corner, Black men are murdered in the streets, and, an aging pair of professors trap and eat younger folks in their effort to curtail the march of time. And while King’s books usually truck with the supernatural, this time the horror is all real.

Rolling Stone talked to King in advance of the publication of Holly to talk about why he’s so enamored of this particular heroine, Covid, and how he sees AI fitting — or not fitting — into the literary world. 

When did you decide to give Holly her own book?
Well, I guess that I just sort of liked Holly a lot. You get to know characters and some you don’t want to go on with. And some of them… I really wanted to see what she was up to. I like her so much because she’s such a weird combination of insecurity and OCD and detective ability.

Do you see yourself in her at all?
Yeah, I do. I have a lot of OCD tics, straightening pictures in strange hotel rooms, that sort of thing. I feel like I can’t really go to bed unless I’ve brushed my teeth half a dozen times or something. And so, yeah, I recognize her a lot and I’ve certainly seen a lot of people who are in her situation who have been treated badly through high school and some of the early work experiences, and yet they blossom. I like Holly because she’s a late bloomer, let’s put it that way.

Yeah, I like that as well — that she had this life that her mother wanted for her, and then she completely broke out.
Right. Yes. She was supposed to stay under Mother’s thumb, and of course, Mother plays a big part in this book because Holly is never really free of her mother. I don’t think any of us really are.

I heard that the idea for this book came from a vision you had of Holly attending her mother’s funeral on Zoom.
Yeah, exactly. Sometimes you’ll get a picture and you say to yourself, “I want to write this scene, but I don’t have anything to go with it. It’s just by itself.” And for me, it’s always a two-part process. I get a scene and I really want to write it, and I think about it, and I know what the words would be for that one particular scene, but there’s nothing to connect it to. So I had this image of Holly at this Zoom funeral and turning off her camera so that she could just put her head down and cry.

I heard the second piece of inspiration for this book was a news story you read about an elderly couple honor-killing a family member. Holly seems to usually deal with supernatural creatures — like the shape-shifting Outsider in the book by that name — but the couple in this book seem far more terrifying.
Holly talks a little bit about that at the end, and she says something like, “When you deal with people like the Outsider it’s almost comforting in a way because you can say if there’s an outside force for evil, then there must be an outside force for good.” Where in the real world, when you deal with people like the [cannibalistic professors] the Harrises, they seem outrageous — until you put them in perspective of people like Dennis Rader, the BTK killer who did unspeakable things to his victims, just unspeakable. There are police who were involved with those crimes who simply won’t talk about what they saw at some of those crime scenes. So that’s the inside evil, the prosaic side of it.

[Rader] was a very prosaic man and in a lot of ways the Harrises are prosaic people. They’re academics. I’m sure that you’ve been to college and you have known professors who would climb up on their hobby horses and just sort of babble on about those things. And Rodney Harris is that kind of guy. He just believes in the sanctity of meat.

There have been a lot of cannibals popping up in pop culture recently. What do you think it is about them that it’s so disquieting to us?
I think that it’s one of the final taboos. One of the interesting things about all of those creatures that have been spawned by George Romero, the zombies, the flesh-eating zombies, we say to ourselves, “Oh, my God, that is the worst thing that I can possibly think of.” Rodney is in a class by himself, Rodney and Emily both. But Emily, of course, is the crazier of the two because she’s less interested in the sanctity of livers and brains and that sort of thing than she is getting even with people that she doesn’t like.

I was struck by how much Covid plays a role in the book. In 2023, why did you find it important to make it such a central point?
Well, I wanted to write the book set in the time that I was actually writing the book, which was around 2020 or 2021. And I thought to myself, “Nobody would believe this if they hadn’t been through it. Nobody would actually understand the paranoia and the fear of Covid.” People will see archival footage when we’re old and gray. Well, I’m old and gray now, but when you’re old and gray, people will see footage of bodies being put in refrigerated trucks outside hospitals, and they’ll say, “Did that really happen? Could that have really happened?” And of course, it did. So in that sense, Holly is a time capsule of a particular time when I was writing the book.

I don’t feel like I’ve read a lot of books that were written during Covid that include it as more than a side note.
Yeah, I think that’s true. And it’s tough to do because the whole thing about masks is — I don’t know if you remember this or not, but there was a time in the Nineties when cellphones came in and everybody said, “Well, that’s going to put an end to a lot of tropes in suspense fiction because you can just pick up a phone from your back pocket and call people.”

And when you talk about Covid, you’re talking about people masking their expressions, and it presents its own number of different problems. And there’s always that question of, “Are you going to tap elbows? Are you going to shake hands?” So it presented problems, let’s put it that way. And I tried to do it in such a way that it would not become boring. That’s something that critics and readers are going to discover for themselves and they’ll have their own opinions.

I know that there are a lot of people out there on X, or whatever you want to call it, that are convinced that Covid is over and it’s not a going concern anymore. What do you think of that idea?
Well, Holly’s mother is a Covid denier, and she dies in the hospital of Covid. And to the very end, she’s saying, “I’ve just got the flu. The flu is what I have.” And I think that it goes back to this is not a new thing. There have been people for years who have just been vaccination deniers who say that if you get a vaccination for a certain kind of thing, you’re going to cause birth defects in your children, this and that. Or if you vaccinate your children, they could have strokes. And you see the same things about the Covid vaccinations.

There’s this constant story that thousands of people are dying of heart disease because of the vaccinations. It’s not true, but it’s gained a lot of credence. So there’s a lot of that. And I tried to put that in the book. There are characters in the book who just say, “I don’t believe in this bullshit. It’s all crap.” And that’s the life that we live. And I always try to reflect the time that I’m writing in.

Jerome and Barbara Robinson — Holly’s co-worker at Finders Keepers, and his sister — play a big role in this book. Do you foresee them getting their own books?
Jerome is very important in what I’m writing now. I’m writing another book, and Jerome is involved with this one particularly because in a lot of the early books, Jerome’s job with the Finders Keeper’s Agency has to do with finding lost dogs or kidnapped dogs. So I had a chance to do something in this book with that, and I’m really delighted to see him involved in the book. He’s a cool character.

He really is. I also love your love of dogs that carries throughout your work. How is your dog doing?
Molly’s great. She had a tumor removed from her neck this year. She’s getting on in years a little bit, but she’s still cool. And I think that with dogs in particular, they’re so much a part of our lives, and yet they age so much faster than we do that there’s a kind of cycle that we’re able to see with dogs that we don’t see with our friends. Our human friends, I should say.

I love that in your book Fairy Tale — about a young man who finds a portal to another world — the dog gets to be young again when she takes a ride on a magical sundial. 
The question that I got a lot of times when people would see the cover of Fairy Tale and they’d read a little bit about it, people would ask me, “I don’t want to read this book if the dog dies. Does the dog die?” And my response to that was always, “You have to read the book to find out.”

You must get a lot of that after Pet Sematary. The cat didn’t get to have quite the same fate.
Well, the cat came back. It just wasn’t a very nice cat anymore.

Sadly, I think I would have loved the cat regardless! Anyway, back to Holly: Barbara also gets to explore her talents with poetry quite a bit. I know you’ve written a few over the years. Would you ever delve deeper into that?
Well, it’s like songwriting in a way. I love music and I can’t write a song to save my life. And I love poetry, and I love to read it, and I can’t really write very good poetry. There is a little short poem in Holly that I like that I did write, and that has to do with grass. But I would never try to write a book that centered around having to write a lot of poems. I just can’t do it.

So you mentioned music, and I know you’re a big fan of writing and listening to music. What are you listening to while you’re writing these days?
Oh, I don’t listen to it as much when I write. I think it’s because I’ve slowed down a little bit, or the thought process is not as limber as it was when I was say 30, 35, that sort of thing. But I still do listen to it when I polish, when I rewrite, and I listen to a lot of loud rock & roll.

Lately, I think that I’ve been sort of stuck on Foghat and Bob Seger, people like that. But I’ve also been listening to a fair amount of country music. So a lot of Travis Tritt and Alan Jackson, people like that. Have you heard this song by the guy? It’s “North of Richmond” or something?

Yes. Oliver Anthony and the “Rich Men North of Richmond.” What are your thoughts on that?
I don’t know! I haven’t heard the song yet, but I’ve seen pictures of him. He’s got a beard and he’s got a cool guitar. 

It’s part of a big culture war between the right and the left right now, which is interesting. But I have to ask, I hear you’re a huge fan of “Mambo No. 5” by Lou Bega?
Oh, yeah. Big time. My wife threatened to divorce me. I played that a lot. I had the dance mix. I loved those extended play things, and I played both sides of it. And one of them was just total instrumental. And I played that thing until my wife just said, “One more time, and I’m going to fucking leave you.”

What were you writing at the time?
I think probably 11/22/63. But when I write, there are things that I can listen to a lot. And a lot of it is techno stuff or disco stuff, but techno in particular, there’s this group called LCD Soundsystem, and I love that. Fat Boy Slim is somebody else. I can just listen to that stuff. If you tried to write and listen to Leonard Cohen, how the fuck would you do that? Because you’d have to listen to the words and you’d have to listen to what he’s saying. But with some of the techno stuff, or KC and the Sunshine Band, Gloria Gaynor, it’s all good.

So what have you been reading lately?
I’m reading Beloved for the first time, by Toni Morrison. I got to the point where I said, “You’re 75 years old, you better hurry up and get behind that,” because I’ve always meant to read it. And it’s interesting. It’s a good book. And I’m reading Robert Goddard, who’s an English mystery writer, and I like his stuff too. Very different stuff, but it’s all good. I read a Colleen Hoover book recently. It Ends With Us.

What drew you to Colleen Hoover?
I wanted to see what she was about because she’s so damn popular. So I read that book and I thought to myself, “Oh yeah, I get this. I get why she’s popular.” She tells a good story.


So I read your essay about AI in the Atlantic, which was interesting because it’s so different from a lot of other people’s views on AI. I’m curious how you see it integrating itself into literature.
Well, let me just say that I get the worries about AI as it applies to screenwriters and to writers who are involved with writing for TV. Because there’s this fear, I think this is unstated fear, that AI has sort of been writing sitcoms all along and some of the drama series, too, because they’re pretty formulaic. They’re pretty by the numbers. But as far as AI goes and books written by AI, scripts written by AI, what can you do about it? You might as well be King Canute trying to turn back the tide because it’s going to happen.

But I find it very, very difficult to believe that AI — until it achieves real sentience, which is a ways away yet — can write anything. I’ve read poems by AI that were in the style of say, William Blake, and they have the God stuff and the lamb stuff and all this, but it ain’t the same. It ain’t even close. It’s like the difference between Budweiser and some generic beer. So both of them get you a little bit tingly, but it ain’t the same.